Dr. Eric Boerwinkle
Dr. Eric Boerwinkle

New research led by the UTHealth suggests that variants of a gene associated with obesity and body fat mass may be linked to a greater decline in memory in middle age. The study was published in the Nov. 7 online issue of Neurology®, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

“Our study helps to identify exactly which variants of this gene may be associated with obesity and diabetes, and, independently, may play a role in cognitive decline for people in middle age,” said Dr. Eric Boerwinkle, study author and the Kozmetsky Family Chair in Human Genetics.

For six years, researchers followed 8,364 Caucasians and 2,083 African-Americans between the ages of 45 and 64 who had no history of stroke. Participants were tested for four different variants of the gene associated with fat mass and obesity (FTO). They also were given three tests that measured memory, speed of processing information, and language skills.

The study found that after six years, Caucasians who had two copies of either of two FTO gene variants had three times the average change in score on the verbal memory test compared to participants who did not have the gene variants. The results did not change after considering factors such as age, gender, education, diabetes, high blood pressure, and body fat. There was no such association in African-Americans.

“Although the amount of change was modest, finding the genetic pathways in which these variants are involved and how they contribute to a decline in memory could help scientists develop new treatments for early prevention,” Boerwinkle said.

Boerwinkle is the director of the UTHealth Center for Human Genetics at the Medical School’s Brown Foundation Institute of Molecular Medicine for the Prevention of Human Diseases and director of the Division of Epidemiology, Human Genetics & Environmental Sciences at The University of Texas School of Public Health.

UTHealth study authors include Dr. Jan Bressler, assistant professor of epidemiology at the UT School of Public Health; and Dr. Myriam Fornage, associate professor and holder of the Laurence & Johanna Favrot Professorship in Cardiology. Boerwinkle and Fornage also are on the faculty of Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at Houston.

The study was supported by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.